What’s going on with the Grace Community Church?
The belfry of the Pleasant Street church has been clad in a humongous wooden halo since mid-June, temporarily altering Old Town’s skyline.
The Rev. Eric Dokken said more frequent and intense storms have caused damage to wooden elements of the bell tower.
“We lost a few pieces wood to the wind,” Dokken told the Marblehead News. “We’ve had quite a few windy storms.”
The scaffolding platform
Marblehead resident Michael Kehn, a longtime member of the nondenominational church, is spearheading the period restoration, using his 47 years in the construction business to help out his congregation.
“We totally trust and have faith in Mike’s abilities on this one,” said Dokken.
The church planned on contracting out the steeple work, but bids returned pretty high due to inflation.
“The alternatives were terrible, so I just stepped in,” Kehn said. “Professional steeple jacks wanted twice as much money, about $120,000.”
Kehn offered his services for about half that cost. Kehn, who studied architectural design at Wentworth Institute, engineered and constructed the scaffolding platform.
“I actually built the platform in my yard,” Kehn said. “We craned it up in about 10 pieces and bolted it back together.”
As he built out the ginormous platform in his yard, Kehn said his neighbors were probably saying, “What the hell is that, Mike?”
The platform, about 75 feet up, offers frame-worthy views of Marblehead Harbor, the neighboring steeples of Abbot Hall and St. Michael’s and a sweeping look at the Old Town House in all her glory.
“The beauty in the platform is we don’t need any harnesses or ropes up there to be secure,” Kehn said. “We can just walk around because we have a wooden railing.”
The project transformed into a case study for why it’s good to keep expectations in check when starting period restorations.
Once Kehn and his crew summited the bell tower, they realized that past steeple jacks had used the equivalent of Band-Aids to patch up damaged boards. They pulled back wooden boards and panels to uncover rotted-out wood.
“We are doing a lot more than originally thought,” Kehn said. “We thought we’d go up there and refasten the boards, but they were so bad, so loose over the years. We had to reproduce moldings. We had to completely replace the lower structure [of the belfry].”
He added, “The old nails holding the boards up were literally falling off during high winds from tropical storms and Nor’easters.”
Kehn’s crew also removed lead paint. Meanwhile, he said the bones of Grace Community Church are firm and sturdy.
“Structurally, the church is as solid as can be,” Kehn said.
‘Exactly the way it was’
As the Grace Community Church sits in the Marblehead Historic District, Kehn must adhere to the bylaws governed by the Old and Historic District Commission.
“I made the decision just to replace [all the wood], so that’s what we’re doing now,” he said. “We are putting it exactly the way it was prior to the damage.”
And this is not the first time Kehn has provided tender loving care to the house of worship. Twenty-four years ago, lightning stuck the church’s steeple.
“The very top was burned off when the lightning hit,” Kehn said. “The church hired a steeple jack then, and I worked with him. We redid the whole dome — gold leafed it and everything.”
Kehn pointed out the charred wooden beams from the infamous lightning strike as he climbed up two sets of ladders to get to the belfry. They have since been reinforced with new timber.
Grace Community Church was established in 1810 as a Baptist Church. The congregation worshiped out of the so-called “rock-meeting house” until it built “a new church edifice” on the present-day Pleasant Street, according to Samuel Roads’ “The History and Traditions of Marblehead.”
“It was dedicated during the month of February in 1832,” wrote Roads. Sadly, a fire destroyed “the church edifice” on Feb. 5, 1867.
“During the same year, another house of worship was erected on the same site – which was dedicated Dec. 28, 1868,” writes Roads.